This summer Media Arts professor Dr. Jacqueline Vickery and M.F.A. documentary student Niki Warncke facilitated a digital storytelling workshop at UNT for local teens in foster care. Dr. Vickery designed and taught at 5-week summer course called "Community Media Education" in which 16 UNT students learned the basics of media literacy education and best practices for collaborating with teens in foster care. During the last two weeks of the class, 20 local teens from Cumberland Presbyterian Children's Home joined the UNT students for a Digital Storytelling workshop. In partnership with UNT students, the teens learned the basics of media literacy, storytelling, and media production.
In Texas only 3 percent of teens in foster care graduate from a 4-year university, this is despite access to free tuition at a Texas public university. There are significant challenges that negatively affect the academic performance of kids in care, most of which are beyond their control (e.g. constantly changing schools). They face many barriers that make college seem inaccessible or undesirable. Dr. Vickery wants to demystify college and lower barriers by inviting teens in care to explore campus in a fun and relaxed environment. "Our campus is only a mile away from where the teens live, they are our neighbors and I want them to know this is a public university and they are part of that public." By partnering with actual college students the teens gained new perspectives on what college looks like, the kinds of courses they can take, and the opportunities on campus.
Each day of the workshop the teens learned about various aspects of media literacy and were encouraged to think about how their own experiences, perspectives, and stories are portrayed in mainstream media. Although media is full of stories about young people, rarely are teens provided opportunities to speak for themselves. Teens typically only appear on the news when they are either the victim of a crime or they have committed a crime. Within narrative film and television, teens are typically represented in negative and stereotypical ways that do not reflect the actual lived experiences of most young people. These limited and dismissive representations are even more significant for teens in the foster care system who are consistently marginalized within society and are invisible or silenced within media.
The workshop was intended to provide a space for teens in foster care to share their stories; media was merely the vehicle through which they could do that. The teens and UNT students worked in groups of 4-6 people to create a short media piece of the teens' choice. UNT students led workshops to help teens think critically about the kind of story they wanted to share, who their audience was, and how they could effectively and powerfully communicate their message. They were encouraged to "speak back" to negative stereotypes and to share their experiences and stories.
After two days of intense workshopping, the teens learned how to use the Media Art department's professional production equipment. They spent the next four days planning, producing, and editing their short films. Each piece is unique and creatively reflects the individual interests, talents, and perspectives of the teens who worked on the projects.
The workshop culminated with a screening and award ceremony on the campus of Cumberland. To an audience of approximately 75 people - including Cumberland board members, foster care alumni, UNT faculty, staff, and students, and residents and staff at Cumberland - the teens got to see their films on the big screen. They were also given a chance to talk about the experience and were recognized for their accomplishments. From the perspectives of all involved -professors, students, teens, and Cumberland staff - the workshop was a huge success. Teens who rarely open up or share their stories eagerly participated in the workshop and contributed in some way to their final films. As one girl remarked, "At first I thought this was going to be stupid, but then I realized not everyone gets this opportunity and it was actually a lot of fun. I hope to do it again because I learned a lot." Several teens discovered media production as a new avenue through which they could express themselves.
"I want teens to walk away knowing that their voices are important and validated. I hope they will keep making media and hopefully this experience will help them develop a positive impression of college - an impression that will help them believe that college can a be part of their future," said Dr. Vickery.
*Note - to protect the privacy and confidentiality of the teens, their faces are not recognizable on camera and only their first names are included in the credits*
Local coverage of the workshop:
Teens in Foster Care Encouraged to Strive for College - Philip Townsend, WFAA
UNT Looking to Share Stories of Foster Kids' Success - Joel Thomas, CBS DFW